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How We Adjust Our Behavior to What Is Perceived as Normal

Tuck professor Jennifer Dannals explores social norms within teams.

Every office has its own way of doing things. 

Maybe it’s the kind of place where emails are returned within an hour of receiving them, or where people come in early, or stay late, or socialize in the kitchen over coffee in the afternoons. When we enter those new environments, we may find ourselves subtly conforming to what we perceive to be the expected behavior—suddenly coming in at 7 a.m, for example, even though we have never been a morning person before.

“A lot of individuals hold private beliefs, but they don’t act in line with them because they believe that the average belief within a group is different,” says Jennifer Dannals, who came to Tuck as a new assistant professor last July. Dannals has long been fascinated with how people change the way they act to bring themselves in line with perceived social norms. As a psychology major at Princeton, she worked on a project to change social norms around bullying in New Jersey schools. “I was interested in how we develop a sense of what is normal and not normal and what’s appropriate and not appropriate,” she says.

She went on to earn a doctorate at Stanford in organizational behavior, examining how that sense of perceived social norms is affected by diversity and hierarchy within an organization. In one recent research project, for example, she showed participants videos of people arriving to work to see how quickly new people get a sense of average behavior within a group. Overall, she found, participants were very quick to develop an accurate view of the time most people arrived at work

A lot of individuals hold private beliefs, but they don’t act in line with them because they believe that the average belief within a group is different. I was interested in how we develop a sense of what is normal and not normal and what’s appropriate and not appropriate.

When there was an outlier who arrived 15 or 20 minutes early or late, however, people tended to exaggerate their effect, revising their whole estimate in that person’s direction. “If something is really available to you in your mind, you tend to over-represent it,” Dannals says. Interestingly, when people were much earlier or later, however, people discounted them as a fluke, and ignored them in their estimates. “That tells you something,” Dannals says. “If you want to change a social norm, it’s important to be sufficiently moderate rather than really dramatic overnight.”

In another project, she looked at how hierarchy affects people’s perceptions of what is appropriate in an organization. Despite the emphasis on leading by example, she actually found that most people coming into a new organization tended to put less stock in the actions of leaders in determining their own behavior, in favor of people lower in the hierarchy. “If you ask people whose advice they would like to read about organizational culture, more than half of people picked the people on the bottom end of the hierarchy,” she says. The findings emphasize the need to get buy-in from the rank and file in an organization in order to change or maintain social norms.

The same forces that lead you to become central to an organization, a tendency to extraversion or sociability, might lead you to become more biased in your perception of what’s appropriate.

Dannals’ latest project is examining how someone’s position within an organization—whether they are central to the social network or on its fringes—influences their perceptions of norms. “The same forces that lead you to become central to an organization, a tendency to extraversion or sociability, might lead you to become more biased in your perception of what’s appropriate,” Dannals says. “There is an interesting tension between those things.” For that research she is partnering with Tuck colleagues Adam Kleinbaum and Daniel Feiler who have long been collecting data on social networks.

Dannals is herself acclimating quickly to the social norms of Tuck. “The faculty and students are all very community-minded and collegial and nice,” she says, noting that in the psychological literature, people tend to adapt more quickly in smaller communities. “In a big city, people can easily defect from the collective if they choose,” she says. For that reason, she says, it’s definitely been a positive to see how welcoming Tuck’s community has been. “People really want you to feel like you can get involved easily. They ask you what you’re doing outside work, and really want to know the whole person,” she says. “So far so good.”